Treatment shaves weeks off cancer treatment time

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Many worries jump to mind when a woman receives a breast cancer diagnosis. Complicated procedures, surgery, and weeks of daily treatments are just the beginning of the list. The Betty Puskar Breast Care Center at the WVU Cancer Institute now offers a new form of treatment that can cut weeks off of treatment time for some patients.

Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) is a new way of delivering radiation therapy after a lumpectomy for early stage breast cancer patients. After surgeons remove a cancerous lump from the patient’s breast, they insert the IORT applicator into the cavity where the lump had been, and radiation specialists apply radiation therapy directly to the affected area.

The WVU Cancer Institute is the first in the state to offer IORT and is the only treatment center within two hours of Morgantown. Since the program launched in August, 13 women have received IORT.

Traditional care involves three to six weeks of daily whole-breast radiation treatments following a lumpectomy. Though the treatment is only 15 minutes long, daily appointments may be impossible for some women due to work schedules, child care, or transportation. Many women in West Virginia live an hour or more from a radiation center. For many of these women, their only options are whole-breast removal or declining radiation therapy altogether, raising their risk of recurrence by 30-40 percent.

“It can be very cumbersome for patients to travel every day for treatment for three weeks, let alone six weeks,” Jessica Partin, M.D., said. “They may be geographically isolated, and that might be a burden they can’t overcome. Some people actually do end up saying, ‘I can’t do that; I’ll do the mastectomy instead.’”

With IORT, a patient receives her surgery and her radiation therapy in one procedure, eliminating the need for additional visits.

IORT offers additional benefits as well. The surrounding healthy tissue, including the heart and lungs, receive much less radiation exposure than with whole-breast radiation. Because only a small portion of the breast is irradiated, side effects, such as redness and fibrosis, are reduced.

Not every breast cancer patient is a candidate for IORT. Patients must be over age 50, and their cancer must meet specific criteria in order for IORT to be an option. A multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists consults over each case to determine the best options for the individual patient before any treatment begins.

“This is in line with the way we have been doing things, which is as a team,” Dr. Partin said. “When the patient is diagnosed, we see the patient as a group or discuss as a group before we initiate therapy so that all components of their care — medical oncology, radiation oncology, surgery, reconstruction, genetics, clinical trials — are involved, so the patient has a coordinated treatment plan. That helps overall in delivering effective care and reducing stress.”